Childbirth in a pandemic

From the title of this piece, you may be asking yourself, “Why is the guy who rants about trade tariffs and preaches the benefits of flat taxes writing about childbirth now? Isn’t there a whole other column dedicated to that?” Now it’s my column so I can write what I want so let me dad-splain this to you. in any case, I just had a son last week, so that makes me qualified.

My son [NAME REDACTED] Elliott was born at the Margaryan Maternity Hospital in downtown Yerevan on May [DATE REDACTED] 2020—in the middle of the pandemic. Here’s the story of how Armenia handles births in a time of global plague:

For the sake of our younger readers, I’ll skip the conception part and instead begin the story in March, when Armenia was first hit by the COVID-19 virus. At the time, I was still in Cyprus, where I provided some of the wonderful reporting for Armenian Weekly which you rely on. Rushing home to be with my seven-month pregnant wife, I experienced the first of Armenia’s anti-pandemic prevention maneuvers. 

When I landed, my temperature was taken by first responders in full hazmat suits, but given that I hadn’t traveled to a country with any confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time, I wasn’t asked to self-quarantine. Back at home, as the cases began to rise and the government finally enacted strict lockdown measures, I started reading the first of many articles in North America’s most reputable opinion-leading magazines on the real and perceived dangers of pregnancy during the novel coronavirus pandemic—a thought which, admittedly hadn’t even crossed my mind by that point. I was more preoccupied with ensuring that my young family was well stocked with toilet paper and ammo necessary supplies and emotional support to outlast the lockdown. Luckily, by the time we had ours, enough research had been produced on how to safely deliver babies without risk of COVID-19 infection.

It’s perhaps ironic that the Armenian word քառասունք (“karasoonk”), which refers to the archaic practice of postpartum confinement known in the West as “lying-in,” is a cognate of the Italian-rooted term “quarantine.” By the time contractions started, we’d become quarantine pros—and, unsurprisingly in retrospect, so had the hospital.

Due to an almost total ban on individual transportation, our regular checkups with our obstetrician, Dr. David, moved to (you guessed it) Zoom. Luckily, this wasn’t our first rodeo, so fewer checkups were required as my wife suffered less anxiety than the previous time. But still, knowing that our doctor could always be reached, even during a global meltdown, was a comforting thought.

Of course, until Zoom updated its software package to include tele-baby deliveries, some face-to-face contact was inevitable. While we managed to minimize the number of visits to the hospital, as the date approached, sonograms and other tests became necessary. When we did show up though, quarantine regulations were in full effect. Once temperatures were checked, masks and gloves were an absolute requirement for entry (months before that became the case for Armenia as a whole), though I wasn’t allowed in at all. Appointment scheduling was also spaced out in order to better manage resources and avoid crowding whenever possible. 

While Armenia shares the practice with other post-Soviet medical systems of asking a father-to-be to wait outside the delivery room, when my daughter was born at the same hospital in 2017, I was given permission to witness it first hand. No such exception would be made this time though (either due to the risk of infection, or because I snapped an ill-timed selfie the last time—experts disagree). Once more, I stood outside; not of the delivery room mind you, but the building. Luckily the birth went quite well. The doctor and his staff provided tremendous support during the whole process. I was allowed in eventually (if not reluctantly) to meet my son for the first time once my wife was transferred from the sterile delivery ward to the recovery room. But once I was in, I couldn’t go back out again. No other family members were allowed in either. Quarantine. 

Raffi’s eldest getting a glimpse of her baby brother for the first time

So there I stayed, for three days, as I watched Yerevan gradually reopen from its long slumber. From the hospital window, I could see children playing and couples strolling in the Misak Manuchian park below. Inside, I observed as a veritable cortege of nurses, OB/GYNs, pediatricians and hospital staff followed each other in to check on the baby and mother, serve (rather stale) meals and sanitize. 

The cleaning process was quite rigorous, mind you. Hand sanitizing stations had appeared at every doorway. Leaving the room required the donning of PPE, a mask and gloves – an attire worn by literally the entire hospital staff. A lady came in to clean all the door knobs in our room almost every hour. The hospital also provided some basic hygiene supplies including diapers for the baby.

Hospital staff member tasked with sanitizing door knobs nearly every hour

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was that the baby’s birth certificate was delivered electronically. No more waiting in line at the government ЗАКС office for a slow bureaucrat to issue the paperwork by hand. Though considering that the Canadian embassy in Moscow needed a global pandemic to start receiving citizenship documents digitally, it’s a respectable achievement. Then again, the fact that receiving an electronic certificate was the high point of my experience suggests that I may have been living here for too long.

Three days after delivery, the baby was weighed, tested and declared healthy. We were now free to head back out into our pandemic-ridden city for the first time with our son. We gifted our doctor with the customary bottle of scotch (blended, not single malt—I don’t think he noticed) and left. 

It’s been a week and a half now, and the baby continues to grow. His eyes are getting bluer, and his hair is gaining that distinctive Irish-red tint to it. It’s comforting to look back at this experience with the knowledge that much of our concern and anxiety may have proven extraneous, thanks largely in part to the hard work, professionalism and dedication of the Margaryan Maternity Hospital’s staff and management, who facilitated an almost mundanely normal childbirth experience. 

If our story is true for the vast majority of other families who welcomed new children in Armenia during this pandemic (including those with confirmed COVID-19 cases); but it isn’t for all. Tragically, one mother who gave birth on the same day as us had a confirmed case of COVID-19; she developed a pulmonary embolism and passed away—the first such case in Armenia. I don’t know her name, but if you’ve read this far, maybe spare a thought for her, her child and the family who will now have to raise him.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

2 Comments

  1. Very touching story, so well narrated.
    What a good idea to let us know how a child is born during the pandemic in Yerevan, and how impressive the maternity hospital and the medical team managed to excel in this unpredictable situation.

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